Blowing the whistle
Conventional wisdom in business suggests that if some high-profile person publicly trashes your brand on the global stage, citing compelling evidence of the harmful effects of your products or services, you might fear going out of business or at the very least, suffer some serious commercial harm. It would appear that conventional wisdom doesn’t apply to Facebook.
The world has looked on with a mixture of intrigue and curiosity as whistle-blower, Frances Haugen, has testified in front of the US Congress and last week the British Parliament Select Committee. Haugen has now left the company, but took with her volumes of sensitive internal data exposing what she claims is evidence of the negative effects of Facebook in society. These range from promoting extremism, increasing social polarisation and undermining the democratic process.
However, the most harmful allegations are around the impact of Instagram on the mental health of teenage girls in particular. Haugen claims that the company’s own internal research proves that they are well aware of these harmful consequences, such as endemic online bullying, and a significant rise in mental health issues. Yet Facebook is apparently reluctant to act, allegedly putting profit before people. Her testimonies have been nothing short of toxic for the company.
Some might suggest that Facebook’s recent decision to change its name to “Meta” was linked to this controversy – to distance itself from a brand that was attracting such bad publicity. Not so. It’s just the holding company that’s changing its name and we’ll still have all its sub brands such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram.
And the economic impact of all this bad publicity on Facebook? Profit topped $9bn last quarter and their revenues have grown 35% to $29bn on the back of a boom in online advertising. Normally one would think that major brands wouldn’t want their reputations tarnished by association with such a controversial company. Not so apparently.
I feel there are strong parallels and more than a slight sense of déjà vu with the world’s experience with Big Tobacco several decades ago. As growing evidence mounted of the harmful effects of smoking through both internal and external research, the tobacco giants continued to sell and promote cigarettes and grow profits, claiming their products were not in any way harmful.
Well, we all know how that ended up – a spate of litigation from cancer victims and their families spanning decades and costing the tobacco companies billions. I wonder if the social media giants may find themselves in a similar position in the years to come with the families of teenagers who have suffered badly?
The regular Bullogers amongst you know that I write a lot about intrapreneurship and employee activism in context of broader shifts of power that are going on in business. Whistle-blowers such as Frances Haugen share many of the same traits: a strong ethical compass, the willingness to take personal risk and to subject oneself to ridicule in an attempt to influence a company to do the right thing. Let’s hope that a few more Frances Haugens might come forward in other industries and organisations to ensure that employees at the coal face hold their employers to account, for the benefit of us all.
In the next two weeks the world’s eyes will be on Glasgow for COP26 or the 26th annual “Conference of the Parties” to give it it’s fancy UN name.
(Short aside: I used to laugh at some of the UN / diplomatic language when travelling in parts of Africa where I’d meet people with titles like “Chief of Party” who would be sent on a “mission” as opposed to plain old business trip)
I reckon there will be no shortage of parties in Glasgow in the coming week, but I do hope that world leaders will deliver on the existential challenges posed by climate change.
I’m delighted to say that the Craigberoch Business Decelerator will play a small part in this circus by running a half day Deceleration workshop “Craigberoch @COP26” on the afternoon of Saturday, the 6th of November 2-6pm. I’m very grateful to my friend Eoin Murray of Hermes for providing beautiful premises for this event. We’re expecting a great group of guests from the international and local business community, who will experience something of a “movie trailer” introduction to the vision and benefits of deceleration. We still have one or two places left and so if you are in Glasgow for COP26 and fancy a wee drip “doon the watter” (the way people from Glasgow used to describe going to Bute), then contact me directly ASAP and we can discuss it.
If you’re visiting Scotland and want to extend your stay, the following week we will be back on Bute for the last Decelerator Lab of the year running from the 8th to 12th November. We’ve got a fabulous and diverse crowd coming and it’s shaping up to be another exciting and impactful event. Check out the agenda here and you’ll see how the activities range from art, music and improv through to ceilidhs and storytelling in the evenings.
Tempted? Then get in touch and we’ll do our best to add you in.
Best of the rest…… The past month was a busy one for virtual speaking engagements.
I was interviewed by my friend and Founder of the League of Intrapreneurs, Maggie De Pree for the International Fundraising Conference (IFC) run by the Resource Alliance where we spoke about the potential for intrapreneurship in the non-profit sector. There were over 1000 people registered for the overall conference from 90 different countries and evidently our session was well received.
Kim Polman’s Reboot the Future are hosting a series of “Conversations for Life Economy” and I took part in a very interesting discussion with two great people – Charmian Love and Heerad Sabetti – which was highly iterative and fun.
I’m a huge fan of the global movement called House of Beautiful Business who are currently having their annual meeting in Lisbon. Their Scottish chapter run by Tobi Hofmeister, convened an online event where I spoke about “The Renewable Energy of People”. I shared the bill with some really interesting characters including Professor of Gaming at Hong Kong Polytechnic Gino Yu, Alfred Lohninger of Autonom Health and Suzan Brown who worked with Steve Jobs at Apple. Another really fun discussion.
Last, but not least, I joined the Global Pro Bono network annual meeting and was interviewed about my role in creating Accenture Development Partnerships all these years ago.